Will Nobel Prize help or hurt Colombia’s peace process?

Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos has won a 2016 Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts to bring peace to the country. Andrea Comas/Reuters

First the illusion of peace, then a rejected peace deal, and now a Nobel prize. For Colombians, the last couple of weeks have pulled feelings between the extremes of disappointment, rage, hope… and now, joy?

Semana magazine has called this a week of heart attacks, and it bears noting that it included, on top of everything else, a last-minute football victory over Paraguay in the World Cup qualifiers.

After four years of negotiations between the government of Juan Manuel Santos and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), a historical peace agreement was finally signed with pomp and circumstance in the Caribbean city of Cartagena on September 26. Only to be rejected one week later by a razor-thin margin through plebiscite.

The shocking victory of the No camp – by a difference of 60,374 votes (50.23% of the total) – disappointed not only half of Colombians but also most of the international community.

A cloud of uncertainty descended on Colombia. Murky feelings and gloom rapidly possessed Colombians. Social networks became a combat ring. No-voters claim that the agreements desperately needed some changes to be acceptable. Yes-voters wrote on Facebook that the blood was on No-voters hands if even one Colombian more died in this civil conflict. Hashtags proliferated: #AcuerdosYa, #SiPorLaPaz, #PazALaCalle.

Then, after what locals are calling el guayabo electoral (electoral hangover) wore off, division and disappointment slowly transformed into something akin to hope, as students in Bogota, Cali, and other cities organised marches for peace – the largest such spontaneous public demonstrations in Colombia’s history.

It looked like the Orange Revolution or the Arab Spring, and it saw Yes and No voters coming together to send a message to national leaders: a new agreement must be signed, and representatives from both wings must come together to figure out how to get there.

It was in this scenario of expectation, division, uncertainty and hope that Colombians received the news about their president joining the exclusive gallery of the Nobel Peace Prize laureates.

The question is, does it matter at all?

Colombians rallying for peace in Bogota after the rejected peace deal, just days before Santos’ Nobel win. John Vizcaino/Reuters

Untangling peace

The same questions that plagued Colombia after the plebiscite remain. There was no Plan B for a rejection of the agreement. Will guerrillas jump back into war? Is it really possible to renegotiate any of the points of the agreement? Who will decide which points are open for discussion? How long will it take for another agreement to be reached? Will the ceasefire stand?

Colombia now has a Nobel Peace Prize laureate. And the peace process itself is not dead. The Nobel could work as a boost, as a motivator to move these processes forward, and to push the actors involved.

But this will not happen automatically; it will require real leadership on both sides of the aisle. The text of the agreement is still the solid base from which to launch new negotiations, but the key to untying this knot includes engaging leaders of the No campaign – through sound and efficient mechanisms and in a fair period of time – to collectively decide on the key points that could be discussed with the FARC.

Then the government must again sit down with the FARC to evaluate the possibility of rethinking specific clauses. This process itself is not easy. The points agreed to on September 26 are the result of many years of bargaining, shifting positions and ceding territory. It is frankly hard to imagine that there will be significant concessions at this point.

Perhaps the momentum of hope granted by the Nobel Committee to Colombian actors will materialise in a willingness to yield more in the next round of negotiations, in order to achieve a more consensual peace. But will the FARC agree to harsher sanctions, which was the rallying cry of the No camp?

No more myth-making

Throughout the peace process, the opposition camp inflated resistance by creating and perpetuating myths that exploit a set of fears. While the premises of these fears are not necessarily true, they nonetheless motivated the vote of many people.

For example, there was the idea that a gender perspective in the accords was the beginning of a dictatorship of something called “gender ideology”, in which homosexuality would threaten the existence of the traditional Christian family model. The No camp also said that by signing the agreement, Colombians were submitting to something called “castrochavismo” that would unavoidably transform the country into the next Venezuela.

These myths persist today, and they tap into the growing backlash to recent social advances around gay marriage, transgender rights, and women’s rights. To be effective, any political efforts must work toward breaking these myths and focusing on the points that are actually relevant to establishing peace.

Liberal versus conservative social values are not, ultimately, what the peace agreement is about. It’s about replacing war with democratic process, about the politics of peace.

Leadership not vanity

In spite of resistance by some sectors, the award seems to be well accepted through the nation. It reinforces the mood of unity and hope that Colombians have been trying to build in recent days.

At a minimum, the Nobel creates a more appropriate atmosphere for the necessary next steps to fix what the plebiscite broke, preserving momentum for advancing with the peace process.

But it will take selfless leadership, unmoved by political ambition, without regard to vanity and ego, and only with an honest and original concern for Colombia, to move forward. This is more difficult than it sounds. Some Colombians have always suspected that Santos’ real goal during this peace process was to secure the Nobel. Cynically, then, you might ask: now that he has it, what’s still at stake?

In the end, most people don’t care about his motivation; what they really care about is finding a way out of this mess, about lifting the cloak of uncertainty that has fallen after the No-vote win. It is up to the president to take advantage of this moment.

If the award creates the conditions for moving forward, then Colombians joyfully welcome their second-ever Nobel Prize. If the moment is lost, division will lead them down the tortuous road of a rough negotiation with little expectation of success.

Its worst consequence, and the one that Colombians want most to avoid, is the opposite of peace and almost unthinkable: a return to combat.